A web browser (commonly referred to as a browser) is a software application for accessing information on the World Wide Web. When a user requests a web page from a particular website, the web browser retrieves the necessary content from a web server and then displays the page on the user’s device.
A web browser is not the same thing as a search engine, though the two are often confused. For a user, a search engine is just a website that provides links to other websites. However, to connect to a website’s server and display its web pages, a user must have a web browser installed.
Web browsers are used on a range of devices, including desktops, laptops, tablets, and smartphones. In 2019, an estimated 4.3 billion people used a browser. The most used browser is Google Chrome, with a 64% global market share on all devices, followed by Safari with 18%.
How does a web browser work?
A web browser takes you anywhere on the internet. It retrieves information from other parts of the web and displays it on your desktop or mobile device. The information is transferred using the Hypertext Transfer Protocol, which defines how text, images and video are transmitted on the web. This information needs to be shared and displayed in a consistent format so that people using any browser, anywhere in the world can see the information.
Sadly, not all browser makers choose to interpret the format in the same way. For users, this means that a website can look and function differently. Creating consistency between browsers, so that any user can enjoy the internet, regardless of the browser they choose, is called web standards.
When the web browser fetches data from an internet connected server and it then uses a piece of software called a rendering engine to translate that data into text and images. This data is written in Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) and web browsers read this code to create what we see, hear and experience on the internet.
Hyperlinks allow users to follow a path to other pages or sites on the web. Every webpage, image and video has its own unique Uniform Resource Locator (URL), which is also known as a web address. When a browser visits a server for data, the web address tells the browser where to look for each item that is described in the html, which then tells the browser where it goes on the web page.
The most popular browsers have a number of features in common. They allow users to set bookmarks and browse in a private mode. They also can be customized with extensions, and some of them provide a sync service.
Most browsers have these user interface features:
- Allow the user to open multiple pages at the same time, either in different browser windows or in different tabs of the same window.
- Back and forward buttons to go back to the previous page visited or forward to the next one.
- A refresh or reload button to reload the current page.
- A stop button to cancel loading the page. (In some browsers, the stop button is merged with the reload button.)
- A home button to return to the user’s home page.
- An address bar to input the URL of a page and display it.
- A search bar to input terms into a search engine. (In some browsers, the search bar is merged with the address bar.)
- There are also niche browsers with distinct features. One example is text-only browsers that can benefit people with slow Internet connections or those with visual impairments.